Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis, King of Nightlife, Knows You Have to Fight for Your Right to Party

After ninety-one years, New Yorkers are once again legally allowed to dance in bars. Enacted in 1926, the Cabaret Law made it illegal to host “musical entertainment, singing, dancing, or other forms of amusement” without a license. We asked Steve Lewis, Nightlife King, his thoughts.


Until this past week, only 97 of give or take 25,000 New York establishments had that license – obtaining one was not only financially expensive but extremely time consuming with plenty of hoops to jump through and bureaucratic red tape to traverse.


A couple weeks back, I got the chance to interview Steve Lewis, who some consider the King of New York Nightlife. This was right after Ian Schrager released his collection of photos and personal stories from Studio 54’s heyday, aptly titled Studio 54 and I figured, why not get the Godfather of New York Nightlife’s take on the past, present, and future of the scene.


Hilary Schuhmacher: Ian Schrager recently put out a photo book chronicling the pinnacle of Studio 54’s fame, which includes personal memorabilia from his own scrapbooks. Do you have a favorite memory from your time working with Schrager and Steve Rubell at Palladium (the famous niteclub)?


Steve Lewis: There are so many. One that really resonates was the day I came into the office and the entire front room, this huge room, was covered in faucets. [Laughs] Faucets! Ian grabbed me, as excited as a boy who just got an A on his homework, and said to me, “Which one do you like best? Which is your favorite?” 


And I said, “What?”


He asked again. “Which do you like best?”


He was so excited about it, so I went and looked at all of the faucets and showed him which I liked best. He asked everyone that came in that day, “which is your favorite faucet,” and the best part was a few years later when I stayed at the Morgan Hotel, which is what he was working on at the time, and I saw the faucet I had picked out was actually being used. They were all being used. 


That’s the thing about Ian, he listened. Really listened. His attention to detail, having all those faucets around, asking everyone which they liked. He recognized we were tastemakers and was humble enough to ask for opinions, which is rare in the business. Most moguls on his level just do things their own way, but Ian was very inclusive. He surrounded himself with really great people, and that created a million good memories.


HS: Studio 54 is objectively, the greatest club of all time. 


SL: There’s no doubt about it.


HS: In your opinion, has anything ever come close?


SL: No, nothing has and nothing will. The times are different and the fun has been banned. It’s a matter of gathering a cross section of society and that can’t be done anymore. You go to places like House of Yes, an incredible space in Brooklyn, but it’s only 25 or 30% of what it once was.


House of Yes has a lot, the fun and the gay, but it doesn’t have the high end, the celebrity. That’s what’s missing. Studio 54 hit all the notes. At the time, I went once. I used to stand outside, fascinated, watching people go in. I was a downtowner, a rock and roll guy, I wore ripped jeans but I knew enough to go. Steve Rubell would choose the crowd and I’d watch who he picked, and for me, the fun was standing outside and watching Liza Minelli be carried in, or carried out. Rubell would invite me in, but I would turn him down, time after time, and he would scream at me.


Years later, I went for an interview at the Palladium and Steve recognized me as the guy who would stand outside but never go in. That’s the way door people are, you remember every face, every situation, but maybe I was just that one guy, always turning him down. [Laughs]


HS: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that when growing up in Queens you were “too naïve to be afraid of anything,” which later translated into your club life. Could you elaborate on that? 


SL: Bottom line, I saw the movie Casablanca on TV and I became Rick himself. Some people want to be firemen or astronauts, but I always wanted to be Rick. There was a scene where Humphrey Bogart, with one voice, tells the crowd, “Everything’s alright now, it’s over,” then looks at the orchestra and they knew to play. He looks to his right and sees a sherry glass spilt on the table, and straightens it out. That’s what got me: the attention to detail, the power of his voice, the glance at the orchestra, all eyes on him with complete and total control. 


When I started running clubs, I didn’t know anything about running clubs. I was an idiot, a naïve kid from Queens pushed into a world I didn’t belong in because I wasn’t fabulous or good looking or bright. It was a game, pretending to be Humphrey Bogart, until the point where I became him.


HS: You’ve served on the boards of the Nightclub Preservation Community and the New York Nightclub Hall of Fame. What are your thoughts on the steps being taken towards legitimizing New York nightlife, including Mayor Bill de Blasio’s establishment of the Office of Nightlife and the Nightlife Advisory Board?


SL: We’re desperate. The city of New York is in a desperate situation. There’s not enough money in nightlife because the community boards have forced businesses into a 2 AM curfew. Everyone has been tearing their hair out, except for the hotels, who automatically have a 4 AM license. The mom and pop clubs are dying. The bartenders and waitresses don’t make as much, cab drivers can’t make enough money because they don’t have that 3 to 7 AM window where people are going home, or going home from going home with someone. The deli’s start to fail, the Broadway community disappears, the starving artists actually starve and die because they can’t afford to live here. It’s a chain reaction.


We’re becoming a citywide mall, but hey, if that’s what people want then I’ll move to San Francisco [laughs]. 


The entire culture of New York, which doesn’t interest the real estate tycoons that only use it as a commodity to sell condos near the action, revolves around the club scene. Nightclubs in New York make more money and generate more people and tourism than all the sports teams, all the theatres, the zoos, the films. All we’re asking for is someone to plead the case and make it fair. 


I’m not a big fan of Mayor de Blasio, but repealing the Cabaret Law is a brilliant and necessary move. It’s great. He might just know what he’s talking about. [Laughs]


HS: RuPaul famously quipped that “drag will never be mainstream,” that at its core it’s completely opposed to fitting in. The same could be said about NY nightlife. What are your thoughts on that?


SL: When nightlife is good, it’s a creative cauldron. Years ago, fashion came out of nightlife, not the other way around. People would make their own clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy them, and they were fabulous. John Galliano and Marc Jacobs and all these people were knocking off fashion from the club. Today, people are wearing labels right off the rack. 


The creativity is still happening in the hipper clubs in Brooklyn, like House of Yes. People are making their own clothes, their own silhouettes. In that way, fashion is pushed forward, as is music, as is social awareness. Art and sexuality, how people talk to each other, gay rights and all that, it’s in clubs ten years before it’s ever in the street. It’s important that social boundaries are pushed in nightclubs, because that’s what makes New York great.


HS: What are some differences between Manhattan and Brooklyn nightlife?


SL: Brooklyn has the creative expression while Manhattan has the glamour, the celebrity. You have certain kinds of tourists within nightlife. If you’re looking for house music, you’re going to Brooklyn. The really glamourous, higher end tourists – the upper class, the princes, the Europeans and thespians – they’re not necessarily going to Brooklyn. There is money in Brooklyn, of course, but you’d never see Paul McCartney on stage in Brooklyn like you will in Manhattan.


HS: The Manhattan scene is far from dead: Ladyfag’s Holy Mountain and Battle Hymn consistently attract Club Kid icons like Amanda Lepore. Who are some other promoters holding true to “traditional club kid values”, so to say?


SL: Paul’s Casablanca, Baby Grande. Club Cumming is one of the best places in Manhattan right now. 


HS: One of your most recent ventures is Greenpoint’s The Good Room. How’s that going?


SL: It’s going well, I hear. It’s difficult to go back to a place you’ve designed and created. I went I had a good time last time I went, but when I go to Brooklyn I go to House of Yes, or Union Pool, something more underground. I love House of Yes, I love parties, the 4:00 AM creeps, the corners, the sleazy underbelly of New York. 


HS: The term “New York nightlife” encompasses so much. Do you have any advice to people trying to find a niche where they can flourish?


SL: The problem isn’t finding the underground, it’s that the underground can’t exist for more than 10 minutes. Anything great, someone blabs, takes a picture, puts it on the internet and within forty-five minutes, it sucks. Unless it’s exclusive, but then it borders on being pretentious. It’s a fine line.


Despite what people are saying, there are more places to go to on a Saturday night than ever before, by far, but we’re becoming extremely segregated. There’s something for everyone but there aren’t any clubs that cater to everyone. Things have become too exclusive.


Someone will develop diversity in the club scene again, for survival, but it will be more like hanging out with an incredibly diverse crowd. You see it at individual parties, not at clubs. A club with the perfect storm of decent rent, location, and people that know how to run it, it will happen, and when it does it will be better than any club that exists right now. The closest we have now is House of Yes in Brooklyn.


HS: Do you have any predictions for the future of New York nightlife?


SL: We will find diversity again, a club that’s politically correct but open to all ideas. We’re going through a period where people don’t even know how to speak to each other, a period of necessary change. We’re still in that back and forth, but once the dust settles, you’ll see magic.


Featured Image Via I Loved New York.